Monday, December 19, 2005

Beacon No. 73: Market Share and Mind Share


Over at Corporate Power, N.D. Batra reprints a column he did for The Statesman of India on the "Age of Corporate Diplomacy." In it, Batra applauds two U.S.-based multinationals for their international negotiating skills:

When American Airlines, the second U.S. carrier to start a nonstop service to India, planned its Chicago O’Hare to New Delhi flight, its management realized that open skies do not necessarily mean open hearts and minds, in spite of the excellent business climate and trust between the two countries. In an international business venture of this magnitude, failure is not an option. Competition is knocking at the door.

Cultural sensibilities, such as cuisine, had to be taken into account, especially as competition becomes hot on the lucrative non-stop route to one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

According to company sources, “With assistance from the American Airlines Indian Employee Resource Group, and in conjunction with Indian chefs based in the USA and India, the Americans structured a special menu for the Delhi flights that features Indian, Indian-inspired vegetarian and Western meal selections. No beef or pork will be served on the flights to and from Delhi. Only chicken, lamb and seafood dishes will be featured.”

Another airline, Continental, began its non-stop flight from Newark, New Jersey to Delhi on 1 November; and European and Indian carriers are bound to follow soon. Besides, as US[A] Today reported, the non-stop flight has to fly over Russian airspace, which required agreement between the two governments and further corporate diplomacy. So there is a lesson here. Since the foreign policies of a country could put a damper on its international commerce, multinational corporations must have their own corporate diplomats and protocol officers for business development abroad.

Who are these corporate types Batra describes, who do such a good job negotiating with entire countries on their own?

Very often, public-diplomacy initiatives focus on low-level citizen interaction between the U.S. and other countries, and people like myself are big advocates for putting ex-Peace Corps, ex-military, and foreign-born U.S. citizens to work again on behalf of the U.S., taking advantage of their experience overseas and unique cultural and linguistic knowledge.

But Batra's article suggests the U.S. has a large number of "corporate diplomats"—polished, highly experienced executives comfortable overseas, who are familiar with international niceties and who travel abroad with the backing of big companies that want to expand their hard (economic) and soft power in new markets.

My wife's father is one of them: Now in his 80s, Murray Weinberg was based in Hong Kong for 17 years on behalf of two apparel companies, traveling throughout the Pacific Rim and into the People's Republic when it began opening in the 1970s. He stayed abroad despite other opportunities in the U.S., and even jumped employers specifically to stay in Hong Kong. Mr. Weinberg is just one of those people—probably like whoever helped negotiate the American and Continental deals N.D. Batra mentions—who enjoys living overseas, meeting different people and finding things out.

By the time he returned to the U.S. in 1992, Mr. Weinberg was the veteran of thousands of lengthy business dinners and could be polite in several Asian languages. Friends and colleagues from Asia still visit him whenever they come to the U.S.—over a decade after he retired. It's clear that his personal brand—his soft power—was and remains extremely strong.

The total of corporate diplomats' knowledge could be—and already is—a valuable addition to U.S. public-diplomacy efforts. Far from the name-brand executives who frequently accompany high officials on trade visits, these overseas corporate diplomats—"lifers," as my wife calls them—might be a big help to U.S. public diplomacy as interlocutors for their country as well as their companies.

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